This is an edited version of a thought often attributed to philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. It presents a kind of interesting dichotomy that most of us cannot escape. To me, it suggests that the only data we have to work with when learning, is based on our accumulated life history. It is certainly true that we can learn from past experiences, successes, and failures. In fact, I have previously written about ideas contained in John Shuster’s new book, The Power of Your Past.
While we need to learn from it, we should never permit ourselves to be bound by it. Applying past history to develop approaches to future situations presupposes that most environmental forces in front of us are sufficiently like those situations from which our experiential data is drawn. Is that always a correct assumption? Increasingly (I think) it is not. The world is moving faster, we have more information access than ever before (and digesting it correctly is increasingly difficult), and complexity seems to be growing.
I don’t know about you, but I am increasingly drawn to the idea that the economic and stock market situation we see today may be completely unlike anything we have seen before. It seems stunning to me, that now when I see only a 150 point swing in the DOW, I think nothing of it. Ten years ago, many of us would have been looking for a ledge to jump off. As the Government considers fiscal and monetary policies to deal with our economic situation I question if we have we ever before faced the complexities of interlocked global economies, plunging confidence in political leaders, slow growth prospects in our most developed and largest economies, political instability across the planet (information about) which we are bombarded with at light speed, etc? How different must these be before they are considered unconventional problems? That, of course is hard to say. But, it seems evident that conventional wisdom cannot always solve unconventional problems?
Business executives face the same challenges. We all make decisions based on past proven methods and ideas that have formed the basis of our prior successes. I was at a conference once where Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer was a speaker. In the audience were hundreds of CEOs from all across our country. Ballmer chastised us all for trying to plan our future courses but standing on the back of the caboose on an aging train, looking backward at the scenery as it receded from our view, while trying to imagine what was approaching the locomotive engine at the front. (Pretty appropriate metaphor, don’t you think? A pre-industrial age technology, in (more or less) 2-dimensional space as the platform we use to plan for an uncertain and dynamic multi-dimensional future.)
After arguing that such a decision-making strategy could not likely succeed, he challenged us to look to our children for guidance. He said we should carefully observe our kids and consider, how they interact, learn, communicate, seek information, play, purchase things, and behave. “Ask them”, he said, “what kind of company they would like to work for some day.” Ask them about their dreams, beliefs, and values. Think about that . . . and then design your businesses around those things. “Because”, he finished, “in only the blink of an eye, those kids will be your employees and your customers.”
Doesn’t that make sense?
Every young college student today in no matter what discipline, is aware of the amazing culture of companies like Zappos, Google, Apple, or Netflix. Won’t they (in just a few short years) be imagining that all companies have similarities with them? What will happen to your ability to attract tomorrows brightest most passionate talent if your business environment looks vastly different?
If you are unfamiliar with these new century workplaces, check out this clip on Zappos.
Yes, we need to learn from our past. But we have to become a lot better at “thinking forward”.